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St. Mary’s University assistant professor Scott Lovell holds a cougar skull in the biology lab. Wil Andruschak © Postmedia Network Inc.

Joel Schlesinger © Postmedia Network Inc.

Being small has its benefits. Just ask the students enrolled in St. Mary’s University’s science program that recently visited Belize to learn about tropical biodiversity.

“That’s where learning comes alive off the page,” says assistant professor Scott Lovell, who led the group of nine undergraduate program students on the eight-day trip to the Central American nation.

“When they’re studying in class, they are looking at these 2D images of these species, but when they go down there, they are seeing all these species in their habitat interacting with one another — it’s just a great challenge for them to apply what they are learning.”

While the biology course is among the Calgary liberal arts university’s more unique offerings, what it has in common with all the programs offered at the post-secondary institution located next to Fish Creek Provincial Park is its small class size.

That’s a defining characteristic of the school, says St. Mary’s dean of arts and science, Dr. Norman Knowles.

“The average class size at St. Mary’s is 22,” says Knowles, also a professor of history at the university. “That makes the overall student experience much different from larger universities.”

Students get to know their professors, and professors know their students.

“You also know your fellow students and there is a real sense of community and caring for one another,” he says. “That, probably more than anything else, is what draws students to St. Mary’s.”

While research is an aspect of the job for professors, they are focused on job No.1 — providing second-to-none learning experiences for students.

And the science program embodies this spirit of student-centred education.

“Because of our small classes, for our science programs, we’re able to do more learning outside,” Lovell says.

“For programs like ecology, biology and molecular genetics and so forth, we get to go out and collect real-world data, which is something bigger schools can’t accommodate because of their larger class sizes.”

But the school’s Catholic roots also ensure its graduates finish with a well-rounded education that creates tomorrow’s leaders, particularly when it comes to social justice.

“At the heart of who we are is a commitment to social justice,” Knowles says. “And that permeates the university as a whole.”

This feature was created by Content Works, Postmedia’s commercial content division, on behalf of Calgary Economic Development.

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